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Last season ended in a nightmare for Purdue -- now it's living the dream

Purdue suffered the worst defeat in NCAA tournament history in 2023. Now Matt Painter has this group one win away from a national championship.



Last season ended in a nightmare for Purdue -- now it's living the dream
Last season ended in a nightmare for Purdue -- now it's living the dream
GLENDALE, Arizona -- Purdue's past seems so far away.

Following Saturday's 63-50 win over NC State in the Final Four, the upset loss to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson in last year's NCAA tournament is a footnote for the program. These Boilermakers find themselves a win away from the university's first men's basketball national title on Monday night.

NC State, a team that finished 2-7 in its last nine games of the regular season, seemed like a squad of destiny, nearly 41 years after Jim Valvano led the program on the most unlikely trip to a national championship. But 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, the reigning Wooden Award winner and favorite to win it again, and Purdue were just too much.

"You can talk all you want, but if you're not going to play on Monday, you don't have a chance," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "Obviously, we put ourselves in a position to win one. You've got to give our guys credit. They've been able to battle back. They've also been able to handle a lot of adversity."

Over the course of the NCAA tournament's 85-year history, only one man could fully understand Painter. That man is Tony Bennett.

Five years before Purdue suffered the worst defeat in NCAA tournament history, Virginia lost to the UMBC Retrievers in 2018's first round. That unfathomable loss followed the Cavaliers like a shadow for an entire season. The following season, Virginia defeated Texas Tech in the national title game.

After Saturday, Painter and Purdue are close to pulling a Bennett and Virginia -- and ultimately exorcizing the demons of last season's upset. The Boilermakers are almost there, and with the best college player in America and a team that shoots 3-pointers (40.6%) better than 99% of the country.

Although Virginia experienced a top seed's first loss to a 16-seed, Purdue's result a year ago was worse. Fairleigh Dickinson had not even earned the Northeast Conference's automatic berth. Merrimack won the league's tournament but could not represent the conference in the NCAA tournament because it wasn't eligible with the school transitioning to Division I athletics. So the league sent Fairleigh Dickinson, a team with a KenPom rating in the 300s.

The Boilermakers focused on this season. And game by game, the 2023 painful memory slowly disappeared.

"[It's] what we've been talking about all year," said Edey, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. "The reason I came back is [to play in] games like this. The reason I'm playing college basketball for four years -- to finally get this game, it's big time. We've obviously got to keep going and keep playing."

But even with Edey, this moment did not come without a battle.

Although the Boilermakers have been one of the best teams throughout the season, the 3-pointers stopped falling against Tennessee in the Elite Eight. With a career performance by Edey as the catalyst, Purdue had to win an ugly affair. According to Painter, however, that game prepared Purdue for Saturday.

"Well, it's what I said after the Gonzaga game [in the Sweet 16], is after we made a lot of shots, 'Who are we if we miss those shots?'" Painter said Saturday. "Can we still grind that game out and beat Gonzaga? It's very hypothetical, but then the next night that happened [against Tennessee]. Our dominance on the glass, [Edey's] dominance inside. They wanted to limit our 3s and they did. We were 3-for-15."

Purdue still won. On Saturday against the Wolfpack, the Boilermakers won again.

"We're not done," said Fletcher Loyer, who finished with 11 points against NC State. "We didn't even play that good. I think we have a lot more to prove. We have a good day of rest. We'll take advantage of it and be ready to go Monday."

The dream awaits and the Fairleigh Dickinson nightmare is now a fading memory.